This is by far the most difficult In Character I’ve done. Not because there weren’t many good performances to choose from, quite the opposite – it is because Patricia Clarkson has such a vast, flawless body of work that it makes it basically impossible to pick her top five performances, let alone a surefire best.
I am truly hard-pressed to think of a Clarkson performance that I have not enjoyed. Whether she’s starring or supporting, you can always expect her subtlety to shine through. After spending a few days working on this, I have but just one question concerning Clarkson’s career: Where is this woman’s Oscar? Here are a few performances that should've garnered an award (or two) by now.
Five Essential Roles
High Art (1998)
Nearly unrecognizable as a red haired German lesbian with a wicked dependence to heroin, Clarkson’s role as Greta, while lauded with critical praise, often falls through the cracks for admirers of her work. Why? Because she’s just that good. She is so hidden in Greta that there appears to be no Patricia Clarkson within the character. At least not the actress I’ve grown to love over the past decade.
To be clear, her role as Greta is flawless, but there is a good chance that the unaware film watcher may not have a clue who they are watching. Clarkson is so immersed in Greta – in her sadness, her kindness, her pity and doubt – that she utterly disappears.
Far from Heaven (2002)
As Eleanor, Clarkson is the perfect personification of American ‘50s suburban repression. Wealthy, miserable, bigoted – an immaculate façade concealing the fact that she’s nothing more than a suppressed winch. Eleanor is the kind of woman that refers to gay men as “one of those,” and has little to zero regard for people of color.
So when Eleanor discovers that her best friend, Cathy (Julianne Moore) has befriended a black gardener, she’s ungodly embarrassed. Embarrassed to be associated with Cathy, but also embarrassed for Cathy. Mind you, director Todd Haynes is far to brilliant to paint Cathy as a stereotypical villain, instead, Clarkson portrays Eleanor as a modern woman in modern times. Cathy, with her liberal, progressive tendencies, is the abnormal one, not Eleanor. A brilliant, deceptive performance.
Although Clarkson’s Vera is a brief, critically ignored performance, the impact she has while on screen is as significant as any other actor in the film (which is saying a lot). Take, for instance, the scene in which Vera, along with other women from Dogville, accuse Grace of heinous acts that Grace did not commit. Vera berates and physically abuses Grace before ultimately cutting her a deal: Vera will break two of Grace’s prized porcelain figurines, and if Grace can keep herself from crying, Vera will end the punishment and not break anymore.
There’s something I’ve never been able to shake about Clarkson's unrecognizable Vera. If you haven’t seen Dogville, this scene may sound pithily and insignificant, but, considering the similar method in which Grace seeks her revenge on Vera, “insignificant” couldn’t be more far off.
Pieces of April (2003)
For the most acclaimed role of her career, Clarkson plays a tired, sarcastic, spiteful mother who is losing a battle to breast cancer. While Joy and the rest of her immediate family travel to New York City for her fuck-up of a daughter’s impromptu Thanksgiving dinner, Joy has time to reflect on why she is the way she is, which spawns frighteningly honest results.
It’s rare that a mother in a film can ponder aloud how much she hates her own daughter without coming off as a vengeful bitch. But Clarkson gives Joy a particularly fascinating amount of humility. She may indeed loathe her own daughter, but isn’t her daughter almost exactly like her? Questions like these plague Joy, and when she’s not getting high with her teenage son in rest stop bathrooms, or playing cancer-fueled jokes on her family, she’s debating if the trip is worth it. The trip to New York, sure, but also the trips to reclaim motherhood and life.
Leave it up to Clarkson to find this much depth within the throes of a self-admitted bitch.
In Isabel Coixet’s little-seen, remarkably tender romance, Clarkson has a brief role as Carolyn, a successful, unmarried business owner who occasionally sneaks away for intimate trysts with her old college professor, David (Ben Kingsley). The two meet, sleep together, eat something, then go about their business. It’s just for sex, as Carolyn frequently reminds David.
Why then does Carolyn become furious when she discovers that David is sleeping with a current student behind her back? After finding a tampon in David’s bathroom, Carolyn, in a brilliant moment of articulate anger, unleashes her life’s fury on David, explaining that they had the perfect relationship, and he threw it all away. Although that isn’t the last time Carolyn and David meet, that scene represents one of best, most daring moments of Clarkson’s career.
The Best of the Best
The Station Agent (2003)
The year 2003 really was Patricia Clarkson’s year. Her Pieces of April performance merited an Oscar nomination, she showed us something new in Dogville, she stole scenes in Six Feet Under, had a small but memorable role on All the Real Girls, and, perhaps most significantly, delivered a performance of restrained turmoil and comic wit in Tom McCarthy’s tender little film, The Station Agent.
There’s something beautiful about the odd friendship and mutual understanding that takes hold between Clarkson’s Olivia and Peter Dinklage’s Fin. Fin, stuck in a lifetime of regret for being born a dwarf, and Olivia, stuck in a lifetime of regret for losing her young son, understand each other’s pain so well, that when they spend time together, there isn’t a lot that needs to be said to convey the dread they both feel.
Olivia is a bruised and battered woman who spends much of the film trying to convince herself that the pain she feels isn’t as strong as it truly is. Take, for example, the scene in which her and Fin watch their friend Joe play soccer with two young boys. Olivia’s face has a slight smile of admiration. “He sure does enjoy life,” she says to Fin. But watch as that proud smile subtly evolves into a sorrowful grimace. Her boy should be playing soccer with Joe. He should be here.
Later, when Olivia’s pain manifests itself in the form of cowardly rage, we can’t help but be shaken by Clarkson. She’s an actress that can convey a multitude of emotions within a single scene. Subtlety, so it seems, may be her greatest weapon.
Other Notable Roles
|In Shutter Island|
The Untouchables (1987)
The Green Mile (1999)
The Pledge (2001)
The Safety of Objects (2001)
Six Feet Under (2002-2005)
All the Real Girls (2003)
Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)
The Dying Gaul (2005)
Married Life (2007)
Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Shutter Island (2010)
Easy A (2010)
Previous installments of In Character include:
William H. Macy